Sunday, April 21, 2019

Easter Promises Are Personal

Throughout Holy Week, many journalists connected the smoking rubble of Notre Dame to Easter. In a splendid editorial, the National Post observed “The joy the world felt at Notre Dame’s survival… is just a taste of the joy and thankfulness all Christians will know this Holy Week.”

I give these writers, especially in the Post, full credit for their efforts.

But today, fresh images of disaster replace those from Paris. Now our screens and newspapers show us something far worse than the Notre Dame fire—churches in Sri Lanka bombed just as our brothers and sisters gathered to celebrate the Resurrection of the Lord.

This targeted attack on three Catholic churches in three different cities, along with bombs in luxury hotels, has already taken more than 200 lives, with numerous more injured.

All of a sudden, a burned building in Paris seems a weak metaphor for Easter faith.

The deaths of so many Christians this Easter Sunday is far more sobering than Monday’s fire—we’re no longer talking about a church rising symbolically from the ashes, but about people rising from the dead.

The families of those killed in Sri Lanka will surely draw strength from the Resurrection of Christ. They came to church to hear that “God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear,” as St. Peter preached in the first reading.

They were ready to profess the Creed, in which we proclaim our faith in the resurrection of our own bodies—the belief that we also will rise from our graves on the last day.

These truths are light in darkness, and surely great consolations for those who mourn. But there is more, other consequences of the first Easter morning that are connected not only to times of tragedy but to our whole outlook on life.

The title of a book by Anglican priest Fleming Rutledge captures what we’re dealing with. It’s called The Undoing of Death. A parishioner gave me the book two years ago, and it’s shaped how I look at Easter ever since.

We need such books, because we can’t just listen to this morning’s Scripture readings; we need to unpack them. We don’t just need to believe them, we need to apply them to our individual lives.

That was how Father Giovanni approached Good Friday in his very fine homily. He stressed that no matter what is troubling us, we can take it to the Cross of Christ; we don’t need to bear our crosses alone, because Jesus bore our crosses as he carried his.

While I listened, I thought “he’s talking to me about how I’ve been feeling lately.” Then I talked yesterday to a parishioner who is caring for a sick family member, even though he’s ill himself. He said “that homily spoke right to us and our crosses.” Someone else said she hoped a friend struggling with depression was listening to the homily.

The truth is that the Resurrection is every bit as personal as the Crucifixion. Jesus not only bore our sins, he shared his victory with us—not only in the general resurrection of the dead, still to come, but here and now, in our particular needs and circumstances.

Fleming Rutledge exclaims “Changed! Our sinfulness exchanged for his righteousness, our mortality for his immortality, our sorrow for his joy, our bondage for his freedom, and our deteriorating human body for an altogether transformed one…”

She asks a question that each of us must answer: “Can you imagine anything more wonderful than this?”

And she answers: “On the contrary, we can scarcely begin to imagine it, for it does not come from human imagination but from God. All our sins wiped away, all evil done to death forever, the devil and his hosts destroyed, our loved ones restored to us, all the injustices and wrongs of human history made right in a new heaven and a new earth.” [p. 247]

I confess that I can be a bit black and white about some things. But it does seem to me that you can’t dodge the question this morning. You can, of course, deny the fact of Christ’s Resurrection, although the prophets foretold it, witnesses beheld it, and both Peter and Paul proclaimed it.

We are free women and men, and if we choose not to seek the things that are above, no one can force us. But it ought to be a conscious choice. Given all that’s promised this Easter Day—righteousness, immortality, joy, freedom from bondage, and a transformed body, how can we not at least look for an answer to the question, “Can you imagine anything more wonderful than this?”

Perhaps before now you’ve never thought very much about the consequences of Easter—what Jesus rising from the dead can mean for you personally. Maybe you’re a non-Christian visiting us, or a Catholic who was never given the chance to explore what Easter really meant for you personally.

It’s a bit tough to sort it all out on Easter morning. That’s why we invite you to share Easter with us in a more relaxed setting—but with the energy and excitement that Peter and John and Mary experienced at the tomb of Jesus.

We’re inviting you to attend an Alpha evening here this Thursday, April 25. Alpha begins at 6:30 with dinner followed by a lively film that introduces the big picture of Christian life.  No pressure, no preaching.

You can pick up an invitation at the table in the foyer. It comes from a community of friends that doesn’t want to push anything on you, but to help you find the answers to your own questions, and to discover how Easter can be a 24/7, 365-day blessing for you, whatever your particular hopes, fears, or needs may be.

Alpha costs nothing and expects nothing from you. But you can expect a chance to look for answers to your questions, and to the big question of Easter:  “Can you imagine anything more wonderful than this?”

This morning, I can’t imagine anything more terrible than sitting in church as hateful terrorists kill or injure those gathered to celebrate God’s love and mercy. But, at the same time, I can’t imagine anything better than the faith that promises hope and healing in this world, and life forever in the next.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Easter Vigil: A Tour of Unseen Realities

Eight weeks ago today, I marveled, not for the first time, at the magnificence of the cathedral church of Notre Dame in Paris. I gazed at the glorious rose windows, at the lofty gothic arches, and admired the statues.

But there was something hidden that I didn’t see, that almost no one saw until the tragic fire on Monday—the wooden beams that held up the roof. They were concealed from view, though they’re famous now for fueling the flames.

The beams were put in place eight hundred years ago, each made from a single tree, 13,000 of them. No forest in France contains such trees today.

As we know, the stone walls of the cathedral survived the destruction of the roof, and Notre Dame will rise from the ashes, rebuilt and strong.

No-one but historians and architects will really mourn the loss of all those unseen beams. But we should: they are a reminder of the invisible things that make visible things strong and durable.

Tonight, the Church gives us a tour of  the framework of our salvation. We know well the main story—the triumphant resurrection of Jesus is as central to our faith as Notre Dame to the city of Paris. 

But there are other stories that connect to Easter, and by listening to them we understand that God’s plan, however simple in its essentials, is far more glorious than the most magnificent of cathedrals.

The liturgy at this great Easter Vigil could easily begin where we left off on Good Friday.  Jesus has died, now let us hear the Gospel of his Resurrection. Yet the Church makes us wait for the whole story, and invites us to wonder as we wait.

Paying no attention to our impatience, the readings began at the dawn of creation—with the goodness of creation, the first expression of God’s love for us.

We responded in song, praising God for his works and wonders. But the psalm’s antiphon, “Send forth your Spirit, O Lord, and renew the face of the earth” expresses the fact that what God created needs renewal: a new creation is called for.

The second reading presents the source of the new creation: it will be a sacrifice. The sacrifice of an only son.

That’s enough to make us afraid, so in the psalm we renew our confidence in God, who will keep us safe and strong, and bring joy regardless. God kept his promises to Abraham, and he will keep his promises to us.

The third reading offers further encouragement to the hesitant and fearful.  God not only keeps his promises, he keeps them with power and might. We’re not part of a TV show called Survivor; a reality show about Christians would be called Victor.

Our fourth reading moves from history to our own hearts. Isaiah invites everyone here tonight to take stock. Are we thirsty and hungry? The prophet knows that only the foolish are fully satisfied with life; he promises on God’s behalf what the heart most longs for—a relationship that fulfills our deepest desires and answers our most troubling questions.

We use Isaiah's own words in response—we “will draw water joyfully from the spring of salvation.”  Lowering our buckets into the well of salvation is the source of the greatest joy imaginable. Tomorrow I will invite our many Easter visitors to experience that joy, by putting Alpha on their bucket list—not for the future, but for this coming Thursday.

I will promise them the joy that comes from knowing Jesus if they will take the simple step of seeking the Lord while he may be found, in an evening of welcome, fellowship, and hope in God.

I don’t need to talk much about that tonight, because three of our five catechumens and confirmation candidates, attended Alpha, heard an invitation from Jesus, and came to know him better through the Rites of Christian Initiation for Adults, or RCIA. These three—and many others—can tell you about the joy of drinking living water from the well of salvation.

Not all of us have quenched our thirst with Christ, but our final Old Testament reading brings everyone God’s promise of water that washes us clean. The cleansing water of baptism brings a new heart, a heart that beats with love for God and neighbour. Ezekiel speaks God’s promise of a new spirit that helps us live a new life according to God’s commands.

The psalm that follows is not triumphant like Miriam’s song after the crossing of the Red Sea; it’s not the loud shout of joy we sang in response to the promise of thirst-quenching and hunger-satisfying blessings.

No, our last response to this forest of Old Testament scriptures is that of a panting deer, at the edge of the babbling brook that will bring relief from exhaustion. 

Dear catechumens, you are almost there! You have a right to be a bit weary, a bit impatient. But very soon you “will go to the altar of God”; very soon you will be baptized and confirmed and receive the Eucharist for the first time.

I dare not hold you back any longer from the saving water of baptism, from the strengthening oil of confirmation, and the living bread of the Eucharist.

Let me just end by proclaiming that the sturdy oaks of the Old Testament are timbers that hold up the indestructible structure of the Resurrection of Christ, in which God’s creation is refashioned and his promises fulfilled. 

Thursday, April 18, 2019

What was most precious in Notre Dame? (Holy Thursday C)

As the flames licked through the roof of Notre Dame on Monday, firemen and others formed a human chain to rescue precious relics and other treasures of the ancient cathedral.

Most valuable of them all, in more ways than one, was the Crown of Thorns, said to have been worn by our Lord during his Passion.

Obviously, this relic is precious first and foremost because of its association with the suffering of Jesus. The Crown of Thorns was placed on Christ’s head in ridicule but became a symbol of his nobility and triumph.

But there is a more worldly reason why saving this relic was an obvious priority for those rescuing the priceless contents of the cathedral. Although a sacred relic, properly speaking, cannot be bought, the Crown of Thorns cost Louis IX, now known as St. Louis of France, what might now be called a king’s ransom – more than his own weight in gold.

The relic had been pawned as collateral for a massive loan to the Latin emperor of Constantinople, who was eager for closer ties to France. So, King Louis paid off the loan and took ownership of the Crown of Thorns.

I’m telling you this story to show that nothing movable in the great cathedral had greater religious, historic, or even monetary value. Nothing, that is, other than a metal container filled with flat wafers of unleavened bread.

Not bread, of course. Consecrated Hosts, kept in a tabernacle for distribution at Mass and to the sick. Those Hosts, the Body of Christ under the appearance of bread, dwarfed everything and anything else that could be found inside Notre Dame.

The fire department chaplain, Father Jean-Marc Fournier, is heralded as a hero for his role in removing the sacred Hosts from the burning church. The newspaper says that his glasses even reflected the orange flames.

In the middle of flames and falling debris, he took the time to lift high the Eucharistic Presence and bless the burning church with it, praying that the Lord might help those seeking to save God’s house.

The story stirs the hearts of believers and may well even inspire some unbelievers. For me, however, it’s not really surprising, and it’s not really new. Father Raymond de Souza tells a similar story in yesterday’s National Post, though I have to tell you, I already knew it and intended to share it tonight before he beat me to it!*

It’s the story of the Lieutenant Governor of Quebec, Paul Comtois. When his official residence caught fire, he did the same thing as Father Fournier. Since there was a chapel in the mansion, after making sure his family was safe, he returned to the building to remove the Eucharist.

“He made it to the tabernacle and removed the Blessed Sacrament, but died as he left the upper floor, the stairway collapsing around him.”

Father de Souza calls him “a martyr for the Eucharist”.

I’m sure there are many who’d call him a fool. But they don’t believe what we are celebrating tonight, namely, that “the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘this is my Body, that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’”

We are here because we believe what Jesus said when he told his disciples “my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink”. And we hold fast to his promise that “whoever eats of this bread will live forever”.

We, for whom these truths are central to our faith, and to our very being, understand well the heroism of Father Fournier and the Honourable Paul Comtois.

We may not be called to give our lives for the Blessed Sacrament. But we are called to live our lives for the Body of Christ.

The Eucharist calls us to action. Receiving Holy Communion is not a passive thing, like taking medicine. Rather, we enter into a communion of charity not only with God, but also with our brothers and sisters – not only those with whom we gather at Mass, but all those who need our love and care.

Given all the wonders the Eucharist contains, and the rich accounts of the Last Supper in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, I marvel every Holy Thursday that the Church chooses to read St. John’s version of the story. No bread. No wine. The only detail is the washing of feet and the lesson of charity, forever connected to the Lord’s gift of himself in the Eucharist.

Rarely do we find ourselves called to wash one another’s feet. But just about every day we’re called to acts of service that we find irksome, or to put up patiently with people it would be easy to dismiss or reject.  

No doubt the people who built the Cathedral of Our Lady of Paris had many motives. But at the top of the list was surely the belief that what happened inside more than deserved the majestic beauty its architects achieved.

We live in a different age. But we too are called to build a temple in which the Lord can dwell and be glorified. We build it with the same faith as medieval Christians, but instead of stone, mortar, and marble, we build it with charity – with our care for the poor, the sick, the dying, the disagreeable.

And all because we believe. 

On this sacred night, we celebrate what we believe, and recommit ourselves to the great construction project of Jesus, in whom we are being built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God (cf. Ephesians 2:22).

*A footnote: Father de Souza also tells the story of the 1823 fire at St. Paul's Outside the Walls - I lived across the street from the basilica during my years as a seminarian. That, too, was a story to which he beat me! If he wasn't so much smarter than I, I would risk the old line about "great minds thinking alike"... 

Sunday, April 14, 2019

What do the movies Peggy Sue Got Married, X-Men, Men in Black 3, Star Trek IV, and Back to the Future have in common?

The same thing the novels A Christmas Carol, Rip Van Winkle, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban have in common.

They all feature time travel, a popular device in film and fiction.

Time travel overcomes the limits of reality. Like the ancient human desire to fly, time travel frees us from one of the basic limitations of existence—and least for as long as it takes to finish the book or movie.

There’s precious little chance that science will ever make it possible for us to travel in time. But the spiritual life does; in fact, the Christian regularly lives events of the past and even of the future.

We’ve just listened to the Passion—not to be reminded of a story we all know, but to enter into the story.

We’re about to begin a week in which we are invited to share in the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus—not as spectators, but as participants.

In the fourth century, St. Gregory Nazianzen wrote “let us take our part in the Passover… not in a literal way, but according to the teaching of the Gospel; not in an imperfect wat, but perfectly; not only for a time, but eternally.”

“If you are Simon of Cyrene, take up your cross and follow Christ. If you are crucified beside him like one of the thieves, now, like the good thief, acknowledge your God.”

“If you are Joseph of Arimathea, go… ask for Christ’s body. …”

St. Gregory continues his invitation. “… bring spices and prepare Christ’s body for burial. If you are one of the Marys, or Salome, or Joanna, weep in the early morning.”

And it’s not only the Gospel that allows us to enter fully the timeless events of two thousand years ago. With equal power, the liturgy takes us back to Calvary and leads us to the glory of Christ’s resurrection—and to our own, still to come.

There is nothing a Catholic Christian can do that is more powerful and fruitful than participating in the events of Holy Week. Because the liturgies of the Sacred Triduum—Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil—carry us back in reality and not merely in symbol.

This is especially clear on Holy Thursday.  We reenact the first Last Supper in symbol, washing feet as Jesus did; but we experience it in reality as we receive his Body and Blood just as the Apostles did.

On Good Friday, we stand at the cross no less than Mary and John did; we mourn our betrayal no less than Peter did. When we hear the haunting hymn “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)” we answer, “Yes. I am there. I am here.” The liturgy makes this possible.

At the Easter Vigil, we wait and watch with those first anxious disciples. The long night of sin ends with the dawn of victory, a victory which we not only celebrate but live.

Thursday night. Friday afternoon. Saturday night. Three opportunities to travel back, back to our future.